Are Sonic games actually good? It’s a question I asked myself when I purchased Sonic Mania for review. I grew up playing Sonic, but I never remember the games being ‘must play’ the way other games were. They were difficult in a way that other platforms like Mario never were. And unlike Mario, I never finished a Sonic game. Yet, people always clamor for Sonic games, so I had to see if I was missing something. Unfortunately, I was missing something – the truth. Sonic games aren’t that fun.
Designed for Speed
Sonic games were always about speed. Where other platform games wanted you to spend time exploring or working on puzzles, Sonic was about getting the blue hedgehog from one end of the stage to the other as quickly as possible. Which is excellent for an 8-year old, but terrible for everyone else. And this is the ultimate problem with Sonic – the foundation of the game is just doesn’t work.
Sonic Mania is a game at odds with itself. The loops, ramps, and springs are all designed to make Sonic move without you having to do anything behind the control. You run into a spring that launches you forward, and you spend time more time trying to keep up than actually moving sonic around with the d-pad. Early on the game builds a monument to speed and asks you to pray at the altar. But as soon as you do, you run into platform elements that slow you down. Or you’ve pressed the wrong button on the d-pad thinking you must guide Sonic across the level and you slow him down. You’re continually wanting speed and doing anything to get back to it. The game wants you to go fast, moving at a pace where speed makes the character feel alive, but the minute you slow down it feels like death.
Missing the Good Stuff
And all that speed has a cost. You end up moving so fast through a level that you never have to appreciate the level design or the detail that went into the pixel art and sound design. The highlight of Sonic Mania is how it faithfully recreates the nostalgia and spirit of the Genesis era. Mania feels just like an old Sonic game, and I love how some of the levels like Chemical Zone are throwbacks to the original Sonic games. Yet I never get to enjoy them.
Take the Large gold rings that transport Sonic to a special stage where Sonic can earn chaos emeralds. They’re placed strategically throughout each zone, but chances are that you’ll never see them. Why? Because you only have ten minutes to complete a level or you die. Again, it’s a foundational design choice that places me at odds with what is instinctive. I want to take my time and explore the different paths I can choose to reach the end of the level. I want to find the large gold rings but time is a luxury I have never have.
Speaking of level design, I have a love-hate relationship with the way certain levels are designed. Sonic should have this ebb flow, mirroring the ups and downs of a rollercoaster. If speed is the priority, then slowing down should only be long enough to set you up for another burst of speed. But it doesn’t always work out that way, some levels like Titanic Monarch want you to spend more time actually platforming than moving quickly.
The game requires this accuracy that isn’t available to the player. Not only that but sometimes the enemies are positioned to annoy more than a challenge. There were instances where you would need to jump from a platform just to have an enemy waiting on you to jump with a timed attack that would knock you back down to a previous platform causing you to lose your pace and rings. I can’t tell you how annoying it is to have Sonic running through loops and ramps only to be stopped by a set of spikes and then have to slowly build that speed up again.
Sonic Mania has some “interesting” difficulty spikes that mostly appear during boss battles. It is the assumption that because navigating through the zones isn’t the hardest thing in the world that the boss battles would be where you find your difficulty. And that’s fine, it’s a more of an old-school style design choice but some of the bosses…yeah, it can get that bad. Metal Sonic and the Oil Ocean are two boss battles that come to mind. Especially Oil Ocean. This was one of the zones where I found myself not only annoyed with the way you lose rings but the hitboxes on Sonic.
Sonic follows in the tradition of old school games that give you some invincibility after taking damage. It’s the management of this brief period of invincibility that separates the pros from the newbies. Yet, there was one thing that didn’t seem to be affected by Sonic’s invincibility – platforms. I found this out the hard way during my many attempts to defeat Eggman at Oil Ocean. If Sonic finds himself between two platforms, one touching his head and the other his feet it’s instant death. Even if it’s not really on his head, it’s death. What I found most frustrating is that I couldn’t recreate these occurrences similarly each time. It just seems random, like an extra hitbox floats around Sonic looking for moments to say “ah ha, Sonic should be squished now, time to die.” This also happened on Titanic Monarch when jumping between platforms. Sonic didn’t even have to be all the way under the platform for it to count.
What’s The Point
Difficulty spikes aside, the one thing I could never answer was the point of Sonic. Why was Eggman after the chaos emeralds? And what the purpose behind each of the levels? Were they just random levels that someone thought would be cool to put together or do they have some type of meaning? I know it’s strange to ask for a story from Sonic, but at least Mario had some kind of motivation. Hell, even levels were given meaning, they were places in Bowser’s kingdom or places he visited. Sonic on the other hand, just seems to haphazardly traverse each zone with no rhyme or reason.
And that’s ultimately the saddest thing about the game. I just stopped caring about the game. I didn’t bother to get the chaos emeralds or the coins from the special stages at the checkpoints. I just wanted the game to be over with. There’s a lot to like about the game from the art to the sound effects and level design. But I’m never given a chance to enjoy them. I’m supposed to go fast. Speed over everything. But that everything is what would make the game even more enjoyable that it was. And that’s why Sonic isn’t fun. It sacrifices everything in an attempt to keep something it can’t even manage itself. Speed.
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